The Edge – World Question Centre 2003

The Edge – World Question Centre 2003 – The latest offering from the Digerati of the Third Culture [via John Robb]. Though provoking if a little deliberately over-hyped as per the original Reality Club concept, edited by John Brockman.

Actually this collection is generally a little sad, patronising, and cloyingly patriotic, if predictable – too much “homeland security” driven – inclusive science education for Islamists (!) for example.

Some of my favourites

Denis Dutton, Department of Philosophy, Christchurch, New Zealand says …. [Quote] Today, it is much easier for scientists to receive grants if they indicate their research might uncover a serious threat or problem – economic, medical, ecological. Media fascination with bad news is partly to blame, along with the principled gloominess and nagging of organizations such as Greenpeace. But government itself has played its natural part. After all, as H.L. Mencken once remarked, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Since I’m sure you’re keen to avoid such alarmism, you’ll need an advisor who can see through the fashions of science, and understand something of their psychology. The epidemiologist who slightly overstates the conclusiveness of his study suggesting that french fries might cause cancer (in mice) or the young climatologist on the global-warming gravy train are not basically dishonest people. You too might more easily buy into some doomsday scenario, if it meant regular business-class flights to major resorts to compare computer climate models with other experts (models that you know in your heart could not possibly predict average atmospheric temperatures fifty years hence, but what hell, the food’s great). [Unquote]

Similarly, the contribution from Freman Dyson is wittily ironic.

In fact quite a few of the recommendations are about making science less “accountable” in the short term. [Quote] Science, like business, has been totally captured by the next quarter mentality, and it will require a deliberate effort to stress the long view so that our knowledge matches our predicament. [Unquote] from Kevin Kelly is typical.

Marvin Minsky is brief and to the point.

David Myers puts the peverse economics of homeland security into stark perspective.

Stuart Pimm is probably closest to the truth of the futility of a Presidential Scientific Advisor.

Nancy Etcoff is the most imaginative, in proposing a new National Institute for Humanism

Stop Press ! Susan Blackmore, she of Meme Machine fame, is the most radical, proposing legalisation of all drugs as the most valuable contribution to world science. Nice argument.

Another favourite is Alan Alda, not only witty and ironic, but spot on the main event IMHO – the dangers of rationality.

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